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Enjoying the Pleasures of Cultural Immersion While Living in Spain

Enjoying Paella is of a ritual in Spain.
Sharing a paella with friends is just one of many enjoyable Spanish rituals.

They come to me wanting apartments with terraces, large bedrooms, and clothes dryers. I need to be the first person to rein them in and adjust their expat expectations. I want to tell them, "remember the weather!" Repeat it like a mantra every time you confront something in Spain that falls short of your desires. Join the Spaniards reveling in another sunny day and enjoying a mid-morning coffee in one of Madrid’s outdoor cafés. Smile with delight as you receive your drink at a local bar and tuck into a delicious tapa for no extra charge. Lose yourself in the Prado Museum, stroll through Retiro Park, or learn to dance a sevillana. When you lay your head on the pillow at night, your dreams will be so infused with the scent of jasmine from your recent jaunt to Andalucía that you will forget everything you thought you needed to feel at home here. And you will be glad you did.

Melding the Expat with the Experience

I work in relocations, helping foreigners get settled in Madrid. I can assist them in finding a home or school, guide them through the maze of government offices, give them restaurant recommendations, public transportation advice and encouragement to take the exams to get their driving license. One of my proudest moments was my perfect score on the written test, which I studied for and took in Spanish. One of my most frustrating moments was paying an instructor one euro a minute to “teach” me how to drive after having been a legal driver for over 30 years. However, if you are not a citizen of the European Union or on the list of other countries allowed to exchange your driving license for a Spanish one, you will need to sign up with an autoescuela that can provide you with a dual control vehicle (a requirement for the practical exam). In addition, a good driving school should provide helpful tips on what you must do (and not do) in order to pass the stringent test.

Happily legal, I no longer feel like a fugitive whenever I see the police set up their checkpoints at roundabouts. OK, to be honest, I still fear the roundabouts themselves, especially during rush hour. Statistics show that roundabouts are safer than intersections, but I hold on to my mistrust of these traffic circles as staunchly as I refuse to buy a car with a manual transmission or follow local fashion by backing into every parking spot. 

For these reasons and more, I can empathize with my clients. Originally from Chicago, I am an expat as well. I suppose I had the mental advantage of knowing I would end up in a foreign land. My husband, who is half Spanish, couched his proposal of marriage in the condition that I understood we would one day live in Spain. After I stopped lamenting my reckless choice of studying German throughout high school and college, I wisely signed up for some Spanish night classes. Even after 13 years here, my accent still gets confused stares from some people; others, perhaps more used to dealing with foreigners, have praised me for my efforts. These are the highs and lows of living in another country. You have to be able to take the good with the bad. Learn to savor the wonderful points while not letting the flip side push you over the edge.

Embracing the Mediterranean Menu

Since I am a self-professed foodie, my first and lasting impressions of my new home revolved around getting to know its culinary delights. One early memory was the joy I felt reading the healthy choices on the school cafeteria’s menu. Legumes, soups, and fish were staple dishes. I was not quite as enthusiastic about the overzealous lunchroom monitors who made it their mission to “help” picky eaters move those spoonfuls from plate to mouth. I remember being similarly annoyed when we lived in Argentina. Strangers in the supermarket would notice my kids had a cold; then they would break the conversational ice by asking if I had taken them to the doctor yet. “Different cultures,” I would mutter to myself. “When in Rome or Buenos Aires or Madrid...”

However, who can deny that a healthy diet is one of life’s important lessons? Although my kids are teenagers now and tempted by their fair share of fast foods, they would much rather have a plate of Pedro’s pulpo a la gallega (tender octopus on a bed of boiled potatoes, dressed simply with olive oil, salt and smoky Spanish paprika) than a pizza. My eldest waits for the unveiling of the Christmas jamón as I used to wait in anticipation for the tins of Christmas cookies to arrive from the homes of friends and family. Before you start to gasp at ingesting that luscious stripe of fat that comes with each delectable sliver, you should know that the fat of a quality Iberico bellota jamón contains over 55% oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid); only virgin olive oil has a higher oleic acid content.  

Jamón, of course, can be an expensive indulgence. However, thanks to an idea implemented by the Franco government, you can still find a hearty, nutritious, affordable mid-day meal (i.e., el menu del día). From 1965 to 1975 all restaurants in Spain had to offer a fixed price, three-course menu. Great for laborers and tourists alike, a tradition was established. Although it is no longer law, many restaurants still offer a good daily menu posted on a board outside their establishment or on a separate piece of paper inside the regular menu. Really small places or traditional neighborhood hangouts just have the wait staff recite the offerings. Therefore, I have learned to ask if I do not see a menú del día because it is such a great value and finding excellent 10-euro meal deals has also become one of my favorite pastimes. 

Often the daily menus reflect the wisdom of times gone by. Many establishments serve lentils on Monday, and someone’s abuela (grandmother) will probably tell you that lentils is a great one-pot dish you can throw together and let simmer on its own. Monday was traditionally wash day, and there was no time to be fussing over food preparation. Certainly it was a busy mother who invented the no-nonsense refrain: Lunes de lentejas…si quieres, las comes, y si no, las dejas.  /  Monday is lentils…if you like them, eat them; if not, leave them. In the days when food was rationed, rice was distributed on Thursdays, so you may notice many restaurants still listing paella on their Thursday menu. A more colorful urban legend says that Thursday was the day Franco went hunting. Afterwards, he always liked to dine on paella, so all restaurants had to be ready with this dish since no one ever knew where he might turn up.

Explore Near Or Far

Ah, paella! Thoughts of lunching on a paella brimming with seafood after a morning at the beach in Valencia immediately come to mind. To sum it up in one word: TRAVEL. There are so many ways you can make your way across the country. If you are a foodie like me, you might want to plan a series of trips from region to region trying out the local drink. Go northeast to Catalonia for a fizzy introduction to cava, Spain’s version of champagne. Then head west to Galicia to discover the white wines…no, it is definitely not all about rioja in Spain. Once you taste a good Albariño, you will know why. Before you leave the north, stop off in Asturias to have some sidra. This drink, made from fermented apples, gets poured into your glass from an impressive height by an experienced escanciador so the liquid can be properly aerated before drinking.

Do not let time or money hold you back from exploring. There are many beautiful World Heritage sights that just require a day trip from Madrid. When my kids were little, we would pack up the car and head towards the walled city of Ávila or the hanging houses of Cuenca. I have lost count of how many times we have taken visitors to see the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, but it still never fails to amaze me. If you are lucky enough, you may stumble upon a quaint little festival that will really immerse you in local culture.

Artisan inlaying gold in Toldedo.
Artisan inlaying gold to create a beautiful "plato damasquinado" in Toledo, Spain.

Within walking distance of Segovia is the little village of Zamarramala. On the Sunday closest to the 5th of February, the ladies here put on their finery and dance in the streets celebrating the festival of Santa Águeda. The women are re-enacting how their ancestors in the 11th century distracted the Moors from their posts in Segovia’s Alcázar. While the guards were mesmerized by the dancers in their beautiful costumes, the local men were able to enter the fortress and reduce the number of their enemies. A true Ladies’ Day Spanish style—men must take to the background. During this three-day festival, two local women are given the honor of serving as acting mayor, and if any man doubts who’s in power, he only needs to see the burning of the pelele (a ridiculous straw man figure) to let it all sink in.

Dancers at the festival of Santa Águeda.
Dancers at the festival of Santa Águeda.

Shop With the Locals

Local color and customs can be found on a daily basis if you choose to shop at the local mercados instead of a big name supermarket. Each town usually has a permanent municipal market of food vendors plus a weekly open air mercadillo that has all sorts of clothes, home goods, fruits and veggies, etc. Eavesdrop on conversations between shoppers as you wait for your turn; it is a fun way to practice your Spanish. I enjoy the personal touch of the small business owner who always manages to remember me as well as something about my family or our likes and dislikes. I could hug the greengrocer who addresses me as guapa (pretty), a free enough gesture to be sure, and yet, he pulls it off with an ease and sincerity that should land him on the silver screen.

You must be flexible and have patience if you want to shop outside the box of chains and franchises. The small stores may not have extensive work hours and elect to close on Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. They often lock up for a few hours each weekday to enjoy a meal and a siesta, and their re-opening times come with a little wiggle room. Then again, you are sure to find a gem or two like my tea provider, who stocks every tea I can imagine and has traveled the world learning about his products. 

In these economic times, I say a little prayer each time I leave one of the Mom-and-Pop businesses I like to frequent in the hopes that they will still be there the next time I need them. Working to live, not living to work was my impression of Spanish society when I first visited Spain in 1990. Towns seemed to shut down as everyone headed to the beach for the month of August. You never knew when businesses would be open during Easter week or how to catch someone at their desk during the Christmas-New Year-Three King holiday trifecta. Everyone was spending time with family, relaxing and enjoying life. 

Prepare Yourself for Change

Today, Spain is feeling the full brunt of la crisis; unemployment is at 26% (around 56% for those under 25). Families still have a lot of time together, but now it may be because they are all living under one roof trying to make ends meet. Young Spaniards with the necessary language skills are seeking work abroad, and the boarded up businesses in Spain are being bought up by the Chinese who are making a successful go of it. I read that Russian tourism is up on the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada, and some are even deciding to buy second homes here. 2013 could be the year that the millionaire American businessman will start work on EuroVegas, which could create 250,000 jobs in the Madrid area. 

As I have changed in my time here, so has Spain. I arrived when the peseta was still in use and when smoking was permitted in any locale. I have seen the countryside around my home diminish during the housing boom and have noticed some sunflower crops in southern Spain give way to small fields of shining solar energy panels. I got caught up in the excitement of the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Eurocopa as if I had been a soccer fan all my life. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the March 11, 2004 commuter train bombing occurred. The following month I was asked to disembark the Seville-Madrid fast train in Cordoba because something had been found on the tracks. It was a sobering moment handing in my return ticket to receive a refund that was awarded “due to an act of terrorism.” 

My life and Spain’s history have become intertwined, and I do feel at home here. “My ashes…,” I say to my son who would rather be anywhere else than listening to my instructions one more time. “Remember that half of me gets scattered here…somewhere nice…maybe up in El Escorial. The other half goes to the US, over your grandparents’ graves.” By the tilt of his head and set of his shoulders, I cannot decide if he is paying attention or simply already bearing the burden of his task. Of course, the young never waste much time thinking of death. I reach up to squeeze his shoulder, hanging onto the hope that he is listening.   

For More Information

The best way to get to know a city is to get out and explore it. Start learning the language right away. Plan some outings, and make some friends to enjoy it all with you. Here is some information to get you started:

AngloINFO Madrid, is great for 1-stop shopping about all things Madrid. If you have not built up a base of friends yet, this website has categories that should cover just about any question you have. Find that language school or private tutor now!

Join a club. You will be more likely to get out and about more if you have a support group in your life. Here are a few English-speaking organizations:

Hidden Madrid—A Walking Guide (Volumes 1 & 2): These books will help you plan walking tours of the various barrios of the city. In addition, you will learn little known facts to amaze and delight your family at dinnertime.

The Notebook Madrid. Buy a hard copy of this guide to help you settle into life in Madrid or at least sign up for its free weekly supplement, delivered directly to your Inbox. Tips on restaurants, shopping, leisure-time activities, etc.

In-Madrid. Edgy and fun, pick up this free monthly publication at various distribution points throughout the city. Alternatively, just read it online for news, views, events, and essential information for tourists and residents alike.

Guía del Ocio. It is time to practice your Spanish. I do not think the price of this little booklet has risen in the past decade—still only one euro at your newsstand. There is a new one each week, or search their website. Find restaurant information, movies (OK, seek out those VOS original-version flicks), museums, exhibitions, and more.

If you have kids… visit www.kidsinmadrid.com, www.mumsinspain.com, and in Spanish: www.saposyprincesas.com.

Spanish food. Are you looking for a recipe or just general information on Spanish cuisine? Blogger Janet Mendel has lived in Spain for over 30 years and authored several cookbooks.

Even if she can't travel as much as she would like to, Andrea Isiminger gets to meet interesting people from all over the world through her work at Matrix Relocations and free time spent with the great ladies at The International Newcomers Club of Madrid.

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